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Gary Player is still perfect fit for golf

At 79, the nine-time major champion usually shoots better than his age

It was well beyond just a good day at Riviera on Thursday, and not just because the weather for the first round of the Northern Trust Open was Southern California perfect.

Gary Player was in the house.

There is nobody quite like him. Lunch with him is a four-course offering of golf, philosophy, passion and common sense. When they create the next one like him, they will need DNA from Tiger Woods, Billy Graham and Socrates.

South Africa remains his home, but Player still travels the world like he did when he was winning nine major titles. Also like he did when he added four more majors on the senior tour, making him the only one to complete Grand Slams on both tours.

Player is a jet-setting conglomerate. He makes appearances, advises businessmen, represents major golf companies such as Callaway and designs golf courses all over the world.

And he still plays. A lot.

"Seventy-five is a bad score for me," he says. "I shoot my age almost every time out."

He has earned the right to brag. He will be 80 in November.

The opinions intersect and intermingle with the wonderful stories and memories. The recent U.S. failures in the Ryder Cup converge easily with his first swing at St. Andrews in 1956.

"You know how the U.S. can win the Ryder Cup?" Player says. "Play better. Don't make excuses. Just play better.

"They were going to form a committee to study what was wrong and try to fix it. A committee? Are you kidding? Just figure it out. They're better, so you have to get better."

He also says he heard a TV analyst talking about how difficult it is for U.S. players to play in Europe, that home advantage was worth two shots a player. Player debunks that with a snort, and it's not hard to remember that, in the early 1970s, as a star athlete from apartheid South Africa, he was hardly made to feel at home on the road because of his country's horrible racial policies.

People assumed that because Player was white he was a supporter of apartheid. They kicked his ball into the rough, threw ice in his face and yelled in his backswing, once on a 14-inch putt in the 1969 PGA championship that he missed by four inches in a tournament he lost by a stroke to Raymond Floyd.

"I've played in tournaments, like the Masters against Arnie," he says, "where the only people rooting for me were my wife and my dog."

His wife and dog were certainly pulling for him when Player stepped to the first tee for the first time at the sacred grounds of St. Andrews in Scotland in 1957. He was a 21-year-old, 5-foot-6 newcomer in his third major. The night before, he hadn't had enough money to pay the 40 pounds for a hotel room, so he slept on the famous beach at St. Andrews, where they filmed "Chariots of Fire."

"The first fairway is so wide a blind man couldn't miss it," Player says. "The starter is 6 foot 4, he looks down at me and says, 'Play away, laddie.'

"I was so nervous, I yanked my drive so far left that it actually had a chance of going out of bounds until it hit the marker and bounced back into the fairway. The starter calls me over and says, 'What's your handicap, lad?' I told him I was a pro. He looked at me and said, 'You must be a hell of a chipper and putter.' "

Player won the British Open at Muirfield in 1959, then returned to St. Andrews for the event the next year.

"The same starter is on the first tee," Player says. "He takes one look at me and says, 'It's a bloody miracle.' "

He is legendary for his fitness and work ethic. He holds out his hands and says, "These hands have hit more golf balls than any human on Earth." He acknowledges that Vijay Singh might catch him, but figures Singh has many years to live before he does so.

Singh was among Thursday's first-round leaders at five under par.

Player rises from his Caesar salad to punch himself in the stomach. Still rock hard.

He says he is proud of the fitness of most current players and says it certainly wasn't so in his day.

"They'd laugh at me," he says. "The only exercise they'd do is lift an olive into their glass."

His prevailing theory is that there is much more to come from the game of pro golf.

"We haven't scratched the surface of what's going to happen," he says. With nutrition and the good life, he says, there will soon be a "LeBron James-like" player who will "reach all the par-fives at Augusta National, except No. 8, with a driver and a wedge."

He says that, in balancing the long hitters, players such as Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson, "who are not good drivers," have helped the game by showing it is possible to win with "good shots out of the rough from 100 yards."

He says he will be at all four majors this year and will, once again, participate in the ceremonial first tee-off at the Masters with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

Is that all ceremony, or does a pilot light of competitiveness still flicker?

Player laughs.

"I've increased the weight on my barbells," he says, "and yesterday, I did 1,300 setups, with a 100-pound weight on my chest for the last 100."

He sees Rory McIlroy and Jason Day as the future biggest stars of golf — "With Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas close behind."

He tiptoes carefully on the Tiger Woods subject, as so many do, because the fall has been so startling.

"Golf needs him," Player says. "But if you have the yips, you die with them."

bill.dwyre @latimes.com

Twitter: @dwyrelatimes

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